Grand Challenges Portfolio: Product Creation
Olin’s consideration of the entire product life cycle, from idea to market, led me towards working for and creating various startups. While each startup was different in the product or service we were designing, the considerations of human-centric design were central to every project. We often worked with our target users to co-design our product, whether that be Olin or middle school students, firefighters, teachers, non-profits or other student startups. In this part of the portfolio, I will walk through a timeline of startups I worked on in my time at Olin, many of which had roots in education in some way.
The following timeline is made up of five separate projects I worked on at Olin College, starting with IdeaTree Design: a startup I worked on starting in my first year, and culminates with a description of my work for Alleyoop: a startup looking to redefine the notion of college preparation beyond traditional academic boundaries in a way that incorporates a social, fun environment. These projects each involved learning some aspect of product creation, and I have focused each section on a specific observation in product creation while providing a general project overview as well.
IdeaTree Design: Undergraduate Designers + Non-Profits with Design Needs
IdeaTree Design is a startup based out of Olin College‘s Foundry program that ran in 2007-2008, and best summarized by Erik Kennedy (Olin ’10) who also worked on IdeaTree Design with me in his Pecha Kucha video reflection of IdeaTree Design: “IdeaTree is a student-created and run startup design organization that helps student teams engineer design services for non-profit organizations.” My involvement with the project was primarily in the summer of 2007, when I worked full-time on the project with Erik Kennedy and Molly Crowther (Olin ’09) and I was a part of what must have been the third leadership and organization scheme envisioned for the IdeaTree venture. As it turns out, 80% of the work that was necessary in running IdeaTree was finding exciting, appropriately scoped, and well supported projects from outside non-profits to connect to students, but we spent much of our time focusing on filing for non-profit status, working on funding sources for early projects, among other things. IdeaTree ended in 2008 when an Olin professor started Olin’s Sustainability Design Lab, a lab where students could work on meaningful design projects that connected to the real world in some tangible way.
Specific Observation: Project momentum and execution are both more important than clarity and planning in the long term.
In many ways this Olin Faculty + student venture was the elegant solution to the need IdeaTree’s original founders had identified of finding real-world design projects for Olin students. If we had focused as a team on working on real projects ourselves, rather than the organizational, financial, and legal requirements of non-profit status and funding, we might have made this discovery ourselves! As Erik describes in his video reflection above, one important lesson from IdeaTree Design was the idea that project momentum is more critical than a clear vision for exactly what your product or service will wind up being. This same build as you go mentality had reshaped the way many (Internet) startups operate nowadays, valuing progress and momentum over complete clarity and understanding. By attempting to plan and script the whole IdeaTree Design organization we overlooked key issues like lack of student time, difficulty of finding non-profit relationships that would work, and other huge barriers that would never have moved IdeaTree from a student venture into an actual firm that might have supported actual alumni involvement as employees, which was the vision for the company at one point.
Integrated Visual Alarm Network for Firefighters
Central to Olin’s educational trajectory is a series of design courses that emphasize the importance of user and environmental understanding in any problem solving or design context. The course User-Oriented Collaborative Design (UOCD) is central to this series of design courses, and is a course all Olin sophomores take where teams follow a user group (in my case: Firefighters) through research and codesign phases, and culminates in the rough specifications for a product or service that would help this user group. Our project was a visual alarm network meant to aid firefighters in what we called the “Flip from Scene to Station.” This describes the moments surrounding an incoming dispatch alarm to a station where firefighters drop whatever they’re doing, process what their response should be if they’re involved, and then react by getting to the scene as fast as they can. Since the station is where firefighters live they might be in the middle of sleeping, showering, preparing meals, or any other number of activities. Few other professions have this abrupt on-off switch built into their day to day lives, and we thought it was an interesting opportunity to explore. Rather than attempt to recreate any sort of reflection about what this course meant for me academically, I’ve included a visual gallery of the various images and deliverables our team created in UOCD.
If I were to note any specific “product creation” observation from this project it would be an understanding of how to ensure a genuine human-centric perspective is considered when designing a product or service.
My experience with Olin’s Foundry, started with IdeaTree Design and continued through subsequent small startup ventures led me to embrace venture creation as a way to bring what I’d learned in projects and classrooms to real world problems. Alight Learning is the largest project I undertook at Olin and in many ways, despite many project failings, it stands in my mind from a conceptual, user, and prototype perspective as the project I’ve worked on with the most potential impact. Alight Learning grew out of an interest in exploring user-centric product design in an unstructured environment as part of a yearlong “sabbatical” from Olin. As fate would have it a group of six of us took this year long leave from Olin to work on what would become Alight Learning, in addition to other projects, between our sophomore and junior years. While Alight Learning was always primarily perceived as a learning experience, a startup mentality was always a part of how we perceived our project’s progress, even if in the end it was tabled until after graduation as an actual business venture. A shared passion for education that the majority of our team had led to working on an education-related venture, next narrowed to focusing on the specific middle school target audience of students, teachers, and parents. As we later often mentioned to people when describing our product, middle school is a learning inflection point for everyone involved:
- students move from uniform, group-oriented activities of elementary school to more independent activities and varied classroom environments,
- teachers shift to teaching subjects separately to more students at a time,
- and parents begin to get “ohh nothing,” or “I dunno…” responses from their children when asked what their school day was like.
In middle school, social dynamics take precedence over classroom material in such a way that the disconnect in technology integration with the way students now engage socially (Facebook, SMS, etc) exacerbates a perceived disconnect in relevancy for classroom learning. Our team spent three months doing research into our middle school user group, reading dozens of education-related books, designing curriculum plans and instructing 9th grade students through Olin’s Saturday STEM Academy, attending education/technology conferences and meet ups, visiting and interviewing dozens of local area middle schools as well as local education-oriented non-profit groups. We visited schools ranging from a troubled school gone technology integration success story school called CIS339 in the Bronx to private Massachusetts boarding schools, covering private and public schools in between the two as well. Concurrently with this research and immersion into the problem area we worked to synthesize our findings into a project we could get our heads around as a team. In the end we built an online classroom learning tool called Alight Learning, and far from being a simple yearlong project, we’d build instead the foundation for a highly flexible learning platform that was impossible to complete in the time we had. By the end of the year we’d secured some funding and hired four software development interns, bringing the total of number of people working full time the summer after our project started to seven. I was one of the part-time team members at the time, working full time as a User Experience Designer at Microsoft FUSE Labs. You can see the final output of our project’s vision as well as information about our prototype still at AlightLearning.com, though the remaining team members havent actively developed the prototype in over a year. In the near two year length of active research and product development, we designed a working alpha prototype of our platform that was tested in classrooms by some admirably patient and forward-thinking local middle school teachers. If I’m to reflect on a part of the project I wish I could change, it would have been to address formally the issues of a large co-founding team by vocalizing the varying team member expectations for the project. As it turns out divergence in business goals and presumed direction often leads to issues among co-founders, though at the time we didn’t know this.
Specific observation: Forcing extreme clarity and depth to a co-founder’s definition of their personal expectations for a startup is important; most people who haven’t seen a business grow to the point where initial assumptions are strained are likely to overlook differences that can be catastrophic to a team.
In addition to the pitfalls of diverging co-founder expectations, I would also highlight to the need to accept lower thresholds of agreement as a team in order to speed up the product design process. As a team we spent far too much time on product research and distracting idea competitions, both of which contributed to an unnecessarily comprehensive project scope. While continued reasearch made us better able to quickly design later in the project, it also meant our ability to shop anything to the real world was severely compromised. In the end, if was a learning experience primarily, so I’m not that concerned with our limited real market exposure for the prototype.
I came into Olin somewhat dreading the business aspect of the curriculum but in the end I wound up working on six or so startups at varying levels of depth and scope, and as a result I anticipate pursuing my own ventures at some point after graduation, even concurrently with other employment. Alight Learning was central to my expectations to work on my own software-oriented ventures, and for this reason I am forever grateful to the Foundry and Babson’s Summer Venture Programs, as well as the Olin faculty members who helped us throughout that year.
Microsoft FUSE Labs: Visual Topic Maps
My work with Alight Learning led me to attend various technology and startup events in the Boston area, and at one of these events I was approached by the Director of Engineering for Microsofts Startup Labs (now Microsoft FUSE Labs) and asked to explain our project. Eventually this led to a role as a User Experience Designer at Microsoft Startup Labs, an incubator for “future social experiences” that exists at the intersection of Microsoft’s two weak points*: consumer + web. (*This description is admittedly in generalized contrast to Microsoft’s clear successes in “enterprise” and “desktop.”) In my short summer at Startup Labs, I received the best professional mentorship I could have asked for thanks to three rockstar designers. At Startup Labs I worked on several project teams, and while most of the projects I worked on didn’t ever ship, I did get to work on an early version of what looks like is now Microsoft FUSE’s Montage. Montage, a project I remember as “Topic Map.” Topic Map was a way to create social representations of an event on the web. The idea is that by collecting quotes, tweets, images, news articles and videos we can create a social and visual representation for any large event. (e.g. debt ceiling debate, death of Michael Jackson, etc). I’m forever grateful to my coworkers at FUSE, who gave me much more latitude to self-define mini-projects and tangential research than I probably deserved at the time.
Alleyoop: Conley’s Preparation Methods
As fate would have it, I’ve returned to work at Alleyoop after my summer long internship which happened between my junior and senior years, so rather than describe my internship experience there I’ve decided to postpone reflection on this experience for a while.